Happy New Year…of COVID-19. As we welcome in 2022, the pandemic continues to rage, with the highly contagious Omicron variant sending coronavirus cases soaring to their highest level yet. To no one’s surprise, restaurants nationwide are feeling the impact.
“It’s a nuisance that just won’t go away,” says Kenneth Sze, chef-owner of Tuna Bar in Philadelphia. “As an owner, it’s this scary and stressful thing we’ve been dealing with since the beginning of the virus, and it’s not getting better – it’s getting worse.”
But there is some good news. Now that we’ve lived through more than a few weeks of Omicron, new research is quickly emerging, and the current evidence suggests that the variant is milder than previous versions of the virus. Omicron is still predicted to wreak havoc on the unvaccinated, and hospitals nationwide face risk of becoming overwhelmed in the next few weeks. But current hospitalization rates aren’t matching the severe spike in actual case levels. Lab research hints that the variant may be less efficient at entering lung cells, and booster shots are proving to be significantly effective at protecting against severe illness.
“What we’ve seen in other countries that have gone through this already, and what I’m seeing regionally, is that thankfully the patients are not as sick as the ones we saw in March of 2020, or the winter surge last year,” says Dr. Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center. “We’re definitely still seeing people getting very sick, but by and large, those are mainly unvaccinated.”
For starters, it could mean more people will soon feel comfortable returning to dining out, especially once boosted, reversing the dramatic drop seen when Omicron first emerged. According to data from OpenTable, back on December 19, the number of diners seated at restaurants in the U.S. was 33% lower than on the same date in 2019. On Christmas, there was an 81% decrease in seated diners compared to just two years ago.
But as 2021 came to a close, numbers started to increase again. December 30 showed a 27% increase in seated diners as compared to 2019, and on December 31, there was a 15% increase in seated diners compared to 2019.
“Dining out ultimately comes down to an individual risk assessment and your personal risk calculus. If you’re someone who’s young and healthy, and you’re boosted, I think your overall risk right now if you were to get sick is pretty low,” says Sachinwalla. “Take that same situation, but you’re someone who just had a liver transplant six months ago, or you have other underlying medical conditions, and I might tell you to be a little more cautious and wait until case counts are down.”
Many restaurant owners say their greatest challenge with Omicron isn’t guest counts but staffing, something that was already an immense problem before the latest variant hit.
“I think if you ask any restaurant owner, the number one issue with the variant would be staffing. We’re dealing with at least one case or exposure per week, and we’ve narrowly escaped closing down several times,” says Sze, noting a closure would cost thousands of dollars per day. “We’ve had to make a waiter a hostess and people do jobs that aren’t normally their jobs – and other restaurants don’t always get to be that lucky.”
As the most contagious variant yet, Omicron is causing droves of restaurants nationwide to temporarily close due to staffing shortages from people getting sick. Many restaurants are also choosing to close out of precaution when there’s a staff COVID-19 exposure, reopening only once the test results are in. Cities like New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and D.C. all saw dozens of restaurant closures leading up to the holidays, a window that usually proves to be among the most profitable of the year.
Recently, the CDC revised its guidance on self-quarantine, shortening the window for people to return to work. If you test positive, you now only need to isolate for five days, instead of 10, and once you’re feeling better (and fever-free for 24 hours), you can return to work, with mask usage for an additional five days. The CDC says most COVID-19 transmission happens early on, generally in the one to two days prior to symptoms appearing and the two to three days after. The revisions, however, don’t come without controversy, with many experts saying a test should be required before leaving isolation.
What happens if you’re exposed to COVID-19? There are CDC updates to exposure guidance, too. If you’re boosted, the CDC says you don’t need to quarantine, but you’re advised to wear a mask for 10 days following the exposure. If you’re unvaccinated or you’re more than six months out from your second vaccine dose (or more than 2 months after one J&J vaccine), you’re advised to quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for an additional five days. For everyone who’s exposed, the CDC recommends getting tested on day five after exposure, and quarantine immediately if you start feeling symptoms beforehand.
The revised CDC policies come as welcome news for many business owners. But it certainly doesn’t solve the entire Omicron staffing crisis.
“It’s so hard to get my staff tested – that’s the most annoying part,” says Sze. “Instead of changing the isolation time from 10 to five days, it’d be a lot easier for employers to get employees safely back to work if tests were simply more readily available. I’ve literally been begging friends, family, anyone on Instagram to help me by sending tests my way. It’s been awful.”
Despite the current challenges, Sze says he remains hopeful for the future.
“I thought I was going to close down my restaurant at one point and liquefy everything,” says Sze. “But we stuck through it, and now my restaurant is actually busy – we’re just trying to hire back staff.”
One way many restaurant owners, including Sze, have been able to survive is a bigger investment in takeout operations, something variants can’t impact as dramatically as indoor dining.
“We didn’t build the restaurant for takeout, but now the takeout business is insane – it’s insane everywhere,” says Sze. “We shut down the sushi bar at my restaurant to do more of it, and takeout is now generating 20-30% of my business at night. I can do more takeout meals than people sitting in the chair.”
He adds, “Takeout is the new business. And I’m optimistic for the future.”
As for when we can expect Omicron to simmer down, many experts are predicting the peak will hit sometime in the next one to four weeks.
“The expectation is after January there will be a subsequent decline,” says Sachinwalla.